No One to Root For: the 5 Least Likeable Protagonists in Film History

Hopefully, if you are reading this, you are familiar with the concept of an “anti-hero.” An anti-hero, most commonly, is a protagonist with certain questionable qualities and motives, which our pop-culture landscape grows ever more ripe with (see the now-exceedingly evil Walter White of TV’s Breaking Bad). But the thing about a lot of anti-heroes is that they balance their warped outlooks and questionable deeds with redeeming features, be it excessive charm/intellect, strong loyalty to friends and family, etc. — something that makes you tolerate spending an entire film/episode with these fractured not-quite-heroes. In this article, we’re not talking about them. We’re talking about those main characters, regardless of amends made and lessons learned, you just could not warm up to, because from the start they were just plain unlikeable. Sometimes it’s the actor’s fault, sometimes it’s the writer’s, but often it’s completely intentional and ultimately makes for a unique and rewarding experience. In any event, here are five such men and women.

5 Vivien Leigh as Blanche DuBois, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

From the moment this pretentious train wreck arrives in New Orleans at the beginning of writer/director Elia Kazan’s adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ play, you know she’s going to be trouble for someone. Shady Southern Belle Blanche’s secrets have got secrets, and her airs of sophistication and casual condescension towards her sister’s lifestyle only seem to highlight her instability, rather than mask it. Though “antagonist” Stanley is definitely no prize himself, the brute clearly sees through his booze-addled hummingbird of a sister-in-law from the get, and his says mountains about Blanche’s character that the only real sympathy we feel for her comes from her eventual rape by him. Vivien Leigh very rightly won an Oscar for her portrayal of the flighty seductress cum mental patient.

4 Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge, A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Kubrick protagonist, like Lyndon, and by far the most plainly reprehensible figure on this list, Alex is a nihilistic, violent, rape-happy, teenage rapscallion who leads a gang of like-minded youths in futuristic London. He represents a kind of strange flipside to the rest of the list in that McDowell imbues this wretched creature with confidence, charisma and cultured exuberance that makes you care when he’sendangered after losing his ability to lash out at others, even after all he’s done. And then when he has this ability to returned to him at film’s end, the horror of this libidinous, bloodthirsty nightmare being released upon the world comes flooding back.

3 Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry, aka Barry Lyndon, Barry Lyndon (1975)

When the film starts, “Irish Upstart” Redmond Barry is clearly a brat, yet sympathetic enough, as his motivation purely seems to be love when he pigheadedly and violently frustrates the arranged marriage of his cousin (yes) to a British officer — an arrangement that would prove extraordinarily beneficial to his fallen, yet genteel brood. The path he is set on from there turns Redmond (eventually rechristened Barry Lyndon, adopting the surname of the nobleman he cuckolded then posthumously usurped) into a soulless, social climbing asshole, callously betraying the woman he marries while foolishly squandering the fortune he marries her for. Also not helping his case is the cruelty with which he treats the woman’s son (who sees through Barry all along), which ultimately proves to be his undoing. At the film’s end, a grief-stricken Barry makes one final act of humility and redemption to atone for his sins, but by then he may be too well sullied in our eyes.

2 Jason Schwartzman as Max Fisher, Rushmore (1998)

In Wes Anderson’s dryly hilarious second feature, Jason Schwartzman plays Max, an overambitious dilettante, whose disproportionate favoring of extracurricular over academics causes him to fail out of his treasured private academy. It’s hard not to admire a guy who successfully puts on a grade school play based on Serpico, and indie comedies are surely filled with self-absorbed protagonists like Max. But our man Fisher is particularly dickish, cold, and unrealistic, so convinced in his own greatness he seems to believe it puts him beyond responsibility to human decency. You practically cheer when school bully Buchan cracks him one. Even in that moment of clear defeat, a flat-on-his-back Max assures a buddy “We got him.”

1 Brian O’Halloran as Dante Hicks, Clerks (1994)

Granted, there’s a little of Dante in us all (whether you’d like to admit it or not), and yes he really wasn’t “supposed to be there that day,” but this relentlessly whiny ball of phlegm really didn’t have it so bad, and if he did, it was surely a hell of his own making/inaction, as acerbic buddy and fellow clerk Randall was apt to point out. Add to these facts his pathetic/idiotic pining for his thoroughly whorish high school flame, and his eventual betrayal of his quite awesome current girlfriend with said whore, and Dante becomes a tough guy to sympathize with, even as all the machinations wrought throughout his unscheduled workday at the Quick Stop pile up against him.

Honorable Mention

Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson as Enid and Becky, Ghost World (2001)

You can’t help but bristle at these two irreproachably snotty and misanthropic teenage hipsters who prank personal ads for fun. In their defense, their counterparts in the graphic novel the film is based on are even more off-putting.

Katie Holmes as Rachel Dawes, Batman Begins (2005)

Rachel is a character that seems largely created to sanctimoniously espouse the film’s moral messages, and is only rendered even more unrelatable by Holmes’ often smug, cold performance.

Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg, Greenberg (2010)

Though the character allows Stiller to do some of his best acting since Permanent Midnight, it does not change that he is a gratingly neurotic prick that a viewer has real trouble accepting in a romance.

Those are most unloved central characters. Seeing as this topic can quite understandably amount to being a personal issue, feel free to sound off with the protagonists that rubbed you the wrong way.

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